Shock Absorbers

Under a tight schedule, it takes eight weeks to replace one stage floor. Last summer, we had only five. And two enormous stages.

Life is not fair.

But, if you have a good sense of humor, it is funny.

Running The Straz takes an enormous amount of effort on what we call the “back end,” or, the aspects of show business that take place outside of the spotlights. The back-end includes building maintenance, groundskeeping, upgrading and repairing equipment, changing the umpteen thousand lightbulbs, replacing broken concrete on the walkways and other such things. We do our best to execute the work of the back-end during moments that are least disruptive to guests. Often, we get a slight lull in the action over the summer when we are between seasons. We dive into this lull tools a-blazing to address major projects, so when you arrive for the brand-new season you’re not greeted by backhoes, cherry-pickers and gates of orange construction netting. Instead, all is sparkly, shiny and ready to envelop you in a radiant bubble of wonderment, which is exactly why we’re here for you.

Last summer, we faced one of our greatest challenges yet. Because both stages sustained an exciting amount of action last season (compounded by the countless seasons before), replacing Ferguson and Morsani stages with upgraded materials landed on the top of the to-do list for summer chores.

Both stages. Ripped up, carted away, new flooring installed with tech upgrades, repainted and ready to rock and roll by Sept. 11. Which would have been okay if construction crews and our operations department had been able to start in June like normal. But, because we had Broadway summer shows and other gigs booked, the stages didn’t empty until the end of July.

Brand new Ferguson stage floor prior to being painted.

That circumstance left our intrepid and uber-busy Director of Operations C.J. Marshall staring down the barrel of a five-week deadline to replace both main stage floors on time and on budget before the biggest season in Straz history.

Insert sense of humor here.

“The first time we replaced Ferguson [stage], we had eight weeks to do it,” C.J. said. “So, yeah. It was a very, very tight timeline.”

C.J. sat down with pen and paper, sketching out a schedule of how to make it happen. He’d need three crews working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Then, maybe, the stages’ paint would be dry in time for Chicago to load in and the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show to set up on Ferguson.

Maybe. But there was no way they could do it if they had to complete the demolition, clean-up and prep before starting to lay the wood. “The flooring company normally sends about eight people to do the job. We had 22 people on-site. Once we demo’ed the initial 10 feet, the installers started working behind the demo team, starting to lay the new floor before the rest of the floor had been completely removed.” In this building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it manner, crew relieving crew relieving crew, they steadily raced against the deadline that tick-tick-ticked on C.J.’s calendar with all the charm of the Doomsday Clock.

As with most theoretical calculations, C.J.’s were based on a perfect world. In addition to being unfair, life is also not perfect. “There’s so much of the floor we couldn’t see – everything that was underneath the top planks. As we demolished, we uncovered sections that had to be leveled or cleaned and re-cleaned. The crew would open the floor, and I’d see the condition and think that’s another three days; that’s another four days, all the while the date pushed closer to Chicago’s load-in. Would we make it in time? We had to. Somehow.”

Florida’s humidity, especially in the summer, invites mold and mildew like its throwing a block party. C.J. and his operations crew built a tent over the entire stage to create a negative vacuum; inside, they ran several air scrubbing and air sucking machines that cleaned the air of all dangerous spores. This set-up meant that not only were the floor crews sweating it out under an ambitious and possibly laughable deadline, they were doing it in Hazmat suits and respirators.

August came and went.

September arrived, bearing down on the looming arrival of Chicago. When the director of the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show arrived ten days before their event to check on the progress of the Ferguson stage replacement, he saw a giant plastic tarp draped over what appeared to be a half-finished stage – read: the other half was a rectangular hole – filled by men lumbering around in Tyvek suits using power tools. In essence, a scene straight from The X-Files. C.J. assured him all would be well, and the early days of September raced by.

“During this whole project,” C.J. says, “ … there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we made it on time.”

In fact, C.J. and his crews put forth so much effort, they finished two days ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for Roxie, Velma and the outstanding small-business people of Hillsborough County to strut across our freshly painted, very dry, immaculately installed stages.

This cross-section of the Morsani stage shows the design details of a sprung floor.

“Ahead of schedule and on budget,” says C.J. “and we were able to install sprung floors on both stages as well as run about 12 miles of cable under Morsani stage to bring it up to digital standards, to give it a data and electrical infrastructure. Shows need connectivity on stage now, and we have it.” The sprung floors mean that a flexible brace under the planks provides “give,” like mild shock absorbers, to protect dancers’ muscles and joints from abrupt impact. The connectivity allows for access to power and network jacks without having to run temporary cables from set pieces to wall outlets. “I have to give a lot of credit to Ron Stevens of Trident Surfacing, who was our project manager, and Dave Reynolds, a Straz carpenter, who was our point person and really did a great job of keeping the crews going. We also couldn’t have done this project without the hard work of our production electricians, Leslie Bindeman and Jesse Perkins. We’re super excited about the new floors.”

So what happened to C.J. when they crossed the finish line 48 hours early?

“I left town and went and sat in the woods of North Carolina with no cell phone, no internet, no nothing for a week with my wife,” he laughs. “It was wonderful.”

Extraordinary Factoids about Our New and Improved Stage Floors

• Basketball courts also have sprung floors.
• The Morsani Hall stage floor can hold 9,000 pounds per square foot, about 50-70,000 pounds total.
• Both stages are Canadian maple.
• The Morsani stage is 9,500 square feet; the Ferguson stage is 5,000 square feet. That’s 14,500 square feet replaced in five weeks.
• The new floors should last about 20 years.
• Sprung floors also contain a little layer of neoprene, the same material of a wetsuit.
• The Morsani stage gets painted about four times a year because we have so many shows. There were 70 layers of paint on the old stage when they demolished it, adding up to almost a quarter inch.

Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

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A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

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Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

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The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

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Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.

The Fine Art Mystery of Morsani Mezzanine

Dr. Jay and Ann McKeel Ross Art Exhibit

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A drawing of a robe. Toddler dresses. Abstract boxes in a row. What are these art works hanging unceremoniously on the walls of Morsani Mezzanine? Where did they come from? What do you mean some of the greatest visual artists in the world are on display at the Straz Center?

The Tampa Bay area is a land of many secrets.

Our history holds several little-known treasures: the West Tampa cigar workers who rolled the instructions for the first Cuban revolution into the cigar destined for Havana; Woodlawn Cemetery, which features a fairly nondescript section dedicated only to circus folk, and Keith Richards, whose stint at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater churned out the guitar lick to “Satisfaction.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring and prolific gems in Tampa’s atlas of uniqueness is the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, an experiment in art and education started by artist and professor Dr. Don Saff in 1968 that goes strong right now, even as you read this.

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Rauschenberg in his studio with Graphicstudio staff Patrick Foy, Tom Pruitt and Donald Saff, working on In-Dependents/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works) in 1990. (Courtesy of Saff Tech Arts. Photo: George Holzer)

USF Graphicstudio has provided, over the last several decades, a refuge and workspace for some of the most famous, most promising, most daring visual artists to push the evocative, provocative printmaking form. Graphicstudio holds a well-deserved revered status in the art world as a studio at the forefront of international fine art publishing. One of the first artists to work with them was none other than the innovative genius Robert Rauschenberg.

Although The Stones were making headlines in the ‘60s, the boundless eruption of experimental art flourishing in the United States had a home with a group of artists in New York inventing what would be known as Pop Art. Its purveyors – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg – pole-vaulted into the vaunted halls of fame, fashion, fortune (for some) and made art focusing on popular culture a “thing,” a “happening.” Soup cans transformed to colorful social commentary, collages aping advertising slicks erased boundaries between high and low art, and these artists purposefully muddied the waters around concerns with the interbreeding of politics and mass media, consumerism and community integrity. These artists built the complex platform of cultural questioning that each of us stands on today, and two of these Pop Art all-stars – Lichtenstein and Rosenquist – worked in Graphicstudio.

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But before them came Rauschenberg, whose style, labeled Neo-Dada, built the scaffolding for the later work of the Pop Art movement. Rauschenberg is a legend. There’s no other way to put it. He was the one who reconsidered and reconfigured what constituted artistic materials. He put found objects on painted canvases and threw the distinction between sculpture and painting into a tailspin. Rauschenberg was the guy whose White Paintings – canvases covered in uniform strokes with nothing but white house paint – totally confounded the definition of art, making some people really angry and awakened others to a canvas’s possibility for the artistry in shadows or as a backdrop to the art of life. Rauschenberg’s audacity made people question their fundamental assumptions, which made him both loved and loathed, as most great artists are.

Contemporaries admired him, art historians uphold him as one of the most influential American artists of all time and critics continue to debate interpretations of his kitsch-meets-classical work style that upended the boundaries of what it means to make art. Rauschenberg spent years, from 1972-1987, in and out of Graphicstudio, an effort that resulted in 60 editions of prints that experimented with form and technique. Rauschenberg, with the dedication of USF faculty, staff and students, tested his ideas in photo transfer, cyanotype, sepia prints, printing on cloth and ceramics, new material sculptures and a hundred-foot-long photograph during his tenure with Graphicstudio. His works Made in Tampa Two, Made in Tampa Eleven and Made in Tampa Twelve now hang in the easily accessible pop-up gallery of the Morsani Mezzanine.

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Rauschenberg’s Pop Art contemporary, Rosenquist, noted for his deft and original use of juxtaposition, also has two works from his time with Graphicstudio on display in Morsani: Iris Lake and Discover Graphics Smithsonian. After noticing the Rauschenbergs and the Rosenquists, a leisurely stroll across the Mezzanine reveals the art placards carry one gigantic name after another:

• There are four Untitled works from the master maverick of the Pop Art era, Nicholas Krushenick, whose ultra-bold simplistic color blocks lined with black traces conjure an almost Simpsons-esque aesthetic – only 25 years before Matt Groening became a maverick in his own right. It’s worth noting that during this artistic time period, when almost everyone could be categorized somewhere from Op Art to Pop Art to post-Abstract Expressionism, Krushenick is the only one who defies category. He belongs everywhere and nowhere, which is an admirable feat among the wild bunch of enfants terribles cranking out art in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

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• Chuck Close, whose John I and John II appear near the staircase, is one of the last living giants of the age. His singular, mosaic-style of painting meticulous portraits from a grid, often using each 1×1 square as a minute canvas as part of the whole canvas, reinvented the art of portraiture.

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• Miriam Schapiro, the printmaking revolutionary who invented “femmage,” a collage-like style that must include at least seven of fourteen distinct criteria including scraps, sewing, patterns, photographs and a woman-life context, is represented by one of her most enduring works, Children of Paradise, created during her time at Graphicstudio from 1983-1984.

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• Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Robert Stackhouse and the founder of Graphicstudio himself, Don Saff, all have work on the wall in Morsani mezzanine.

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That a collection so impressive, so unique hangs rather humbly in the Morsani Mezzanine raises a very important question: how did they get there? The answer lies with Jay and Ann McKeel Ross. Ann Ross, who moved to Tampa around the time that Rauschenberg was collaborating as set designer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Taylor’s 1957 The Tower, graduated from USF. Ann and her husband Jay loved Tampa, loved this area – and they loved art and culture. In 1968, they helped Saff start Graphicstudio, leveraging their relationships to create a pool of supporters to start a subscription program to help fund the artist residency. The subscribers, now called Research Partners, make an annual contribution to support the research mission. In return, they have opportunities to purchase work from Graphicstudio artists for a special price. (Note: anyone can buy full price Graphicstudio prints and sculptures from the studio’s website.)

A Straz Center trustee, Ann – along with her husband Jay – has been a long time donor to The Straz. She loaned these pieces of her personal collection for community enjoyment and appreciation of the fine work happening at Graphicstudio, which is now recognized as the nation’s leading university-based art research workshop.

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Ann and Jay Ross.

“Ann and Jay are the only collectors that have been members of the subscription program since its inception and therefore have a complete collection of prints and sculptures produced for our Research Partners over the last 50 years,” says Margaret Miller, the director of Graphicstudio. “They have been generous in loaning works from their collection. How fortunate we are to have Ann and Jay in our community. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing art and culture in this region.”

We are very proud and honored to be able to exhibit such a high caliber of work in an open community space like the Morsani Mezzanine, and we encourage you, on your next visit to The Straz, to come early and spend some time with the pieces from Ann and Jay’s collection. If you would like to get involved with Graphicstudio, check out their website: graphicstudio.usf.edu.

 

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.

Il Magnifico

Maestro Anton Coppola celebrates his 100th birthday. We are throwing one heck of a party.

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1917 was a big year.

The first woman was elected to Congress and the U.S. Navy appointed its first female petty officer that year as well. President Wilson declared war on Germany and Congress agreed, thus entering the United States into World War I.

In France, Giacomo Puccini premiered La Rondine in Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. Little did Puccini know that just six days prior a little boy had been born in the Italian ghetto of East Harlem who would, as of right now, be the oldest working Puccini master in the world.

On March 21, 1917, Anton Coppola arrived to Italian-American parents in a country that was not yet a superpower. He grew up in East Harlem with six brothers, a clan of men who made the Coppola name (and its spin-off names) as indelible to America’s artistic history as the Great War was to the history books. The line of Coppola descendants have been nominated 23 times for Academy® Awards, and Anton, our beloved first artistic director of Opera Tampa and international classical music icon, survives as the oldest living conductor who still composes religiously and devotes his life to opera.

A Puccini master, Maestro Coppola was taught by one of Puccini’s own students, so he embodies a direct lineage to the great composer. “He knows everything, has everything in his head. So he doesn’t need to reference the score – he knows Puccini better than any score,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi, who began her professional relationship with Maestro Coppola early in her career at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Lisi, herself an operaphile, launched an opera company at the Shubert that partnered with Yale’s opera master’s program. There she met Maestro. “We were doing a production with Yale students, so I met Maestro and said ‘why don’t you help me start an opera company?’ He said yes, and that’s how it all started,” Lisi says.

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Scenes from Maestro Coppola’s original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, which premiered at The Straz in 2001.

In their eight years in Connecticut, Lisi and Maestro Coppola produced 48 operas together, their creative power ending when she took the helm here. However, it wouldn’t be long before Lisi heard opera’s siren song wafting from the pristine concert hall stage in Morsani Hall. “When I stood on the stage, I thought ‘oh my gosh, they built an opera house.’ There was no formal professional company at The Straz, and I just knew what I wanted to do. It had been ten years since I’d worked with Maestro, but I called him and said I wanted to start an opera company in Tampa, and I couldn’t do it without him.”

Coppola, affectionately known as ‘the little general’ for his tough demands in rehearsal and no-nonsense communication style, barked at her, “Judith! I was waiting for this call!”

In 1995, Opera Tampa premiered with Puccini’s masterpiece, Madama Butterfly, under Maestro Coppola’s baton and the beaming, tear-filled eyes of a packed house at Morsani Hall.

The ensuing years brought triumph, glory, honor and exaltation to the opera season, growing an ardent following for Opera Tampa and an ongoing infatuation with Maestro Coppola’s brilliant gift at culling the best from performers and serving up one dazzling opera production after another. A crown jewel of Coppola’s tenure at The Straz was the world premiere of his heartfelt, contemporary, original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti.

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A Sacco and Vanzetti program, and other gems, from the Straz Center vault.

Just a lad when the two Italian-American anarchists were tried for a murder-robbery that occurred in South Braintree, Mass., Coppola carried the seed of his opera about the case for decades before it began to take form. The case, considered a gross miscarriage of justice toward immigrants that resulted in the electrocution of both men in 1927, landed in the trial-of-the-century category and certainly embedded itself in the collective conscious of Italian-Americans in particular. Coppola’s opera, an examination of the men’s humanity and a closer look at themes of justice, opened to rave reviews in 2001. “I told him we would do the opera, and we did,” Lisi says. “It was a huge hit. It got great reviews. To this day, I remain very, very proud of that opera and of the fact that the Straz Center produced it from scratch.”

This past summer, The New York Times caught up with Maestro Coppola in his Central Park West apartment, where he has lived since 1956, for a spotlight in their charming “Character Study” feature. In the article, writer Corey Kilgannon draws a deft portrait of the diminutive, silver-haired composer working in longhand at an old, green folding cardboard table at a window overlooking the park. Coppola is, Kilgannon notes, penning an original work for an upcoming event for Opera Tampa. Coppola has already completed one work for the event, an ode to a tree, titled “The Tree and Me.”

The event, of course, is our ever-popular Opera Tampa Gala, this year spectacularly themed in honor of Maestro Coppola’s 100th birthday. Maestro will conduct a concert of some of his favorite works as well as originals – including “The Tree and Me” and the work-in-progress captured in the Times. Selections from Maestro’s masterwork, Sacco and Vanzetti, round out the program.

Of course, you can expect a fair showing of Puccini.

“In all this time working together,” Lisi says, “we have become dear, dear friends. People come into your life and enhance it and enrich it in ways that you couldn’t dream. I’ve been fortunate to have this friendship with Maestro. He knows Puccini, he knows Verdi, he knows opera unlike anyone else. He made Puccini real for me. It’s not just notes on a page or an emotion captured by an orchestra or singer. He is among the greatest of the great transmitters of what it is all about.”

This video was created for Maestro Coppola’s farewell concert when he retired from Opera Tampa. See his return to The Straz at Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young on Saturday, Mar. 25.

An Incredible Sound Feeling

The fascinating story of acoustics in Morsani Hall

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“…The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood….” – Mike Chamoun, director of production services at The Straz, on the acoustically-designed elements of Morsani Hall.

Next time you take in a concert or opera in Morsani Hall, also take in the acoustical secrets that hide in plain sight–the doors, the interior chambers between the lobby and the hall, and the cavity at the top of the theater. All of them work in their own orchestra of acoustic perfection that makes an evening in Morsani Hall one of unforgettable, incredible sound.

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Straz Center, and you will find design marvels camouflaged as everyday objects: a seat back, a bare floor, a slightly-discolored seam separating Morsani Hall from Ferguson Hall.

These seemingly insignificant – or merely decorative – details belie the meticulous planning that started the moment a world-class performing arts center became a reality for Tampa.

“The people involved in conceiving the Straz Center wanted the best,” says Mike Chamoun, director of production services and veteran of The Straz since the day it opened. “They were very clear in their desire to deliver the very best performing arts center possible. So, they got the best.”

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Russell Johnson, part of the original team of planners for our performing arts center in Tampa, revolutionized the quality of sound in hundreds of concert halls all over the world.

In the case of acoustical design, the best was Artec Industries, led by famed acoustician Russell Johnson, whose inspiring creativity forged some of the world’s most celebrated modern performing arts venues. Johnson, who died at 83 in 2007, joined the original team of planners and designers tasked with creating a state-of-the-art modern facility for Tampa.

Johnson and the Artec team planned the sound capabilities of the mainstage concert hall around the classic European design, knowing that the hall would host grand opera and the multi-tonal needs of full symphony orchestras. They included a foam “acoustical seam” to be incorporated in the foundation of the building and running up through the walls between Morsani and Ferguson so that sound would absorb in the foam seam before leaking into the other concert hall, contaminating the performances. This detail explains why audiences at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show in Ferguson Hall cannot hear the thunderous applause of the audience next door in Morsani at the end of the Itzhak Perlman concert.

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A view from the stage in Morsani Hall. (Photo by Rob Harris)

“Even down to the bricks,” Chamoun adds. “Construction sand was poured into the three holes of every single brick laid to make this hall.” The sand prevents sound from circling inside the holes and dissipating. In fact, the driving concept was to hold the energy of the sound inside the hall, engulfing audiences inside the sound, giving them the sensation of sitting with the musicians or the musicians sitting among them.

“The whole room is the orchestra. There is no typical ‘shell’ on stage that has to be moved, as you find with most multi-purpose halls. The acoustical shell is the hall itself,” Chamoun says. “There is no carpeting to dampen the sound. The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood. As you move up the tiers, the seat backs get taller to capture sound properly and keep patrons in the proper posture for best listening capability.”

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The sound canopy – or cloud – suspended above the audience in Morsani Hall.

The crowning glory in Morsani Hall usually goes unnoticed by audiences: the 18-panel acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the audiences’ heads. The panels adjust to fine-tune the hall for the specific performance: opera has different acoustic needs than a cellist and accompanist or a Broadway show. “The canopy changes the sound image,” says Chamoun. “The entire design creates an incredible sound feeling that is rarely matched anywhere else in the world.”

In the professional performing arts world, the acoustical purity of Morsani Hall garnered a reputation that precedes it. “We’re one of the largest theaters in the country,” Chamoun says, “and we hear all the time about how coming to perform here is like going on vacation. It’s a luxury hall but it’s accessible to everyone. The very best seats for music are in the third tier, that’s where the best sound collects thanks to these acoustics.”